Shelley and the Quarterly Review
by H. S. Salt
THE utterances of the Quarterly Review on the subject of Shelley’s life, character, poetry, and opinions, afford a striking instance of the strange shifts to which a periodical may be driven when it undertakes the task of defending, through thick and thin, the status quo of a particular religion or social system, and when it entrusts this solemn charge to the care of certain anonymous, and therefore, as far as the public is concerned, irresponsible writers. What was to be expected when this champion of rigid orthodoxy and constitutionalism in poetry, politics, and ethics first felt it to be its duty to throw light on the poems and doctrines of a revolutionary enthusiast such as Shelley; and, further, when subsequent writers in the same Review were compelled if only for consistency’s sake, and out of regard for that sequence of judgment which such periodicals affect, to follow in the same strain, and put a bold face on the unhappy blunders of their predecessors! Four times has this inspired oracle now uttered its portentous verdict on the Shelleyan heresy, and each separate utterance has been a veritable bos locutus; yet all the time Shelley’s character and genius have been steadily rising higher and higher in general estimation.
It was in 1819, the year after that in which Shelley left England for Italy, that the Quarterly Review first addressed itself to the attack, in an article which was read by Shelley in a newsroom at Florence, and drew from him a loud peal of “convulsive laughter,” according to the testimony of one who happened to be present. The article was, from the Quarterly standpoint, one of the right sort. It purported to deal with the Revolt of Islam, which had been published early in the preceding year; but the reviewer had also before him a copy of Laon and Cythna, the more outspoken form in which the poem had been first issued and almost immediately withdrawn. Dismissing the poetry as of no real value, and as at best containing only a few beautiful passages, the writer devoted himself to a furious attack on Shelley’s ethical opinions and moral character— “these are indeed bold convictions,” he wrote, “for a young and inexperienced man, imperfectly educated, irregular in his application, and shamefully dissolute in his conduct.” The charge of personal immorality is freely used throughout; indeed, it is this significant shake of the head, this solemn assumption of the position of one who knows, that lent the article its chief weight at the time, and makes it appear to us, in the light of fuller knowledge, so singularly unfair and disingenuous. The reviewer unhesitatingly charges Shelley with insincerity in his views and with vanity in his ambitious attempt to advertise himself before the world. “We will frankly confess,” he says, “that with every disposition to judge him charitably, we find it hard to convince ourselves of his belief in his own conclusions;” and again, “he is too young, too ignorant, too inexperienced, and too vicious, to undertake the task of reforming any world but the little world within his own breast.” After prophesying that, like “the Egyptian of old,” Shelley would shortly be overwhelmed by the mighty waters of oblivion, the writer concludes with the following masterpiece of malignant innuendo, which can be surpassed by nothing to be found in the pages of the Quarterly Review from the time of its institution to the present day. “If we might withdraw the veil of private life, and tell what we now know about him, it would be indeed a disgusting picture that we should exhibit, but it would be an unanswerable comment on our text; it is not easy for those who read only to conceive how much low pride, how much cold selfishness, how much unmanly cruelty are consistent with the laws of this universal and lawless love.” It is not surprising that Shelley, in his letter to the editor of the Quarterly Review on the subject of Keat’s Endymion should have referred to this article as “a slanderous paper,” and to its author as “the wretch who wrote it,” for it must always stand conspicuous as one of the lasting disgraces of literary criticism. It was written by John Taylor Coleridge, and not, as Shelley wrongly suspected, by Southey or Milman; and it is curious to reflect that its writer owes his only remembrance by posterity to the very poet whose speedy extinction he so confidently prophesied.
In 1821 the Quarterly deemed it necessary to return to the attack, after the manner of an angry bull which detects signs of recovery and renewed vitality in the victim which it has recently mangled. This time it was Shelley’s poetry rather than opinions on which the reviewer exercised his ingenuity; and from the remark that “of Mr. Shelley himself we know nothing, and we desire to know nothing,” it may be inferred that the article did not emanate from the same source as that of 1819. In his own way, however, this writer must be admitted to have fully equalled Mr. J. T. Coleridge’s performance. The two fatal defects which he points out in Shelley’s poetry (the volume under examination being Prometheus Unbound and the lyrics published at the same time) are the want of music and the want of meaning. “The rhythm of the verse is often harsh and unmusical,’’ is his first complaint; and he proceeds to insist that “the predominating character of Mr. Shelley’s poetry is its frequent and total want of meaning.” Among instances adduced of this unintelligibility, are “something that is done by a Cloud,” reference being made to the last and most beautiful stanza of the lyric of that name; the “debut of the Spirit of the Earth,” in Act 3 of Prometheus Unbound the comparison of a poet to a chameleon, which is shewn to have “no more meaning than the jingling of the bells of a fool’s cap, and far less music”; and the stanza of the Sensitive Plant, concerning “the hyacinth, purple, and white, and blue,” which is held up to special ridicule. “In short,” says the reviewer, summing up the qualities of the most splendid volume of lyrics that Shelley ever published, “it is not too much to affirm, that in the whole volume there is not one original image of nature, one simple expression of human feeling, or one new association of the appearances of the moral with those of the material world,” the sole merit that could be allowed the poet being “considerable mental activity.” In conclusion, this brilliant critic, chuckling at his own humour, quotes the final passage of Act 3 of Prometheus Unbound, printing it like prose in continuous sentences, and then gaily informs his readers that it was meant by its author for verse, since “Mr. Shelley’s poetry is, in sober sadness drivelling prose run mad.”
Thus these two Quarterly Reviewers of 1819 and 1821 did their utmost to darken Shelley’s fame; the one stating that not only were his opinions pernicious, but that he was personally licentious, vain, selfish, cruel, and unmanly; the other demonstrating the utter worthlessness of his poetry; while both scoffed at the mere idea of his gaining a permanent place in literature, There has never been a more significant illustration of the perils of prophecy; for though the writers themselves were protected by their anonymity from being personally confronted with the non-fulfilment of their predictions, they left an extremely awkward and compromising legacy to the succeeding generation of Quarterly critics. Their conduct was as inconsiderate as that of the rash merchant who commits himself to some wild speculation without reflecting that, though he may himself abscond in case of failure, he must leave to his embarrassed kinsmen the unpleasant duty of liquidating his debts. For forty years the great oracle observed a discreet silence; and watched the increasing reputation of that “shamefully dissolute” poet, whose poetry did not contain “one original image of nature.” Between 1847 and 1860 no less than six Lives or Memoirs of Shelley had been published, and it had become sufficiently evident, even to Quarterly reviewers, that his poems were not destined to be speedily forgotten. Accordingly, in 1861, there appeared a new article, dealing afresh with Shelley’s life, character, and writings, and taking note of the editions issued by Mrs. Shelley, and the Lives by Hogg, Trelawny, Peacock, and Lady Shelley, which are referred to as “a Shelley literature quite extensive enough for a modest English poet.” The writer evidently felt that his task was far from being an easy one, and to some extent the article is apologetic rather than actively hostile, the line taken being to modify the judgment expressed in 1821 as regards the value of Shelley’s writings, while repeating and emphasizing the condemnation of his opinions and conduct. The lyrics, which once had less music than the bells of a fool’s cap, are now praised as “moving and exquisite poetry”; even the Prometheus Unbound, though still found to have some unintelligible passages, is spoken of as “a grand conception” and a “great work.” “We are far from saying” confesses the reviewer “that the criticisms of forty years ago contain a full and just estimate of Shelley’s genius.” But on the subject of the review of The Revolt of Islam in 1819, and the strictures on Shelley’s ethical theories, the quarterly moralist remains as obdurate as ever. “We cannot look back” he says “on that matter with the humiliation which, if we believed the partisans of Shelley, it would become us to feel”; he is, however, judiciously silent regarding the memorable passage in which his predecessor had hinted that he could tell dreadful things of Shelley’s disgusting wickedness, but for his delicate reluctance to withdraw the veil of private life. On the whole, it must be gratefully recognised that this reviewer of 1861 wrote in a somewhat milder and humaner mood than that which is traditionally manifested by contributors to the Quarterly; indeed, in one noticeable passage, to be presently quoted, he set an example which his successor of 1887 would have done wisely to follow. The rest of his article was chiefly occupied with a sketch of Shelley’s life; a defence of Harriet’s conduct in the separation, and of Lord Eldon’s judgment in the Chancery suit; and a suggestion that the pantheism expressed by Shelley in the Adonais might in time have ripened into a belief in the doctrines of Christianity.
In the quarter of a century that has elapsed since this third ukase was issued by the imperial despot of criticism, who had vainly condemned Shelley to the Siberia of neglected authors, the Shelley cult is found to have made still more remarkable progress, Browning, Swinburne, Thomson, Rossetti, Garnett, Forman, Dowden, Symonds, Stopford Brooke—these are the leading names of those who have done homage to the “considerable mental activity” of the “imperfectly educated” young man whose vanity “had been his ruin.” The publication of Prof. Dowden’s Life of Shelley, towards the close of 1886, marked a new epoch in the appreciation of Shelley’s genius; and the Quarterly Review, like the bungling headsman who causes a shudder to the reader of English history, was again under the uncomfortable necessity of taking up its axe for the purpose of slaying the slain. There is a terrible story of Edgar Poe’s, entitled The Tell-Tale Heart, in which a murderer who has, as he thinks, securely disposed of his victim under the flooring of his room, is driven to desperation by the continued and audible beating of the heart of the supposed dead man. Equally embarrasing had become the position of the Quarterly towards the cor cordium, that heart of hearts to whose melodies it had been so strangely deaf, and whose motives it had so grossly maligned. What was to be done? The reviewer of 1887 found he had no course open to him but to follow still further the path on which his forerunner of 1861 had entered, and to entirely disavow the early criticism by which it had been sought to destroy Shelley’s poetical reputation. The “drivelling prose run mad” is now transfigured into “the statuesque and radiant beauty of Prometheus Unbound,” which drama is further described as “a dizzy summit of lyric inspiration, where no foot but Shelley’s ever trod before.” Even the Cloud whose metamorphoses so severely puzzled the wiseacre of 1821, is declared to be inspired by “the essential spirit of classic poets”; and we learn with a satisfaction enhanced by the source of the confession that “there are but two or three poets at the most, whom literature could less afford to lose than this solitary master of ethereal verse.” After such praise, from such a quarter, the question of Shelley’s poetical genius may well be considered to be settled. The Canute of literature has discovered that on this point the tides of thought are not subject to his control.
But there remained the further question of Shelley’s life, character, and ethical creed, on which the opinions of thinking men are still sharply divided, and where it was possible for the Quarterly Review to make amends to its wounded amour propre by the reiteration of some of its ancient and characteristic calumnies. Here it was that the modern reviewer proved himself to be a man after Gifford’s own heart, a chip of the old block (or blockhead) of 1819, and showed conclusively that though times change, and manners of speech are modified, the spirit that animates the staff of the Quarterly does not greatly degenerate. There is no need to follow the full course of this latest attack on Shelley’s “supposed ethical wisdom,” the upshot of the argument being that “as the apostle of incest, adultery, and desertion, his life and principles merit the strongest reprobation.” This question has often been discussed elsewhere, and the truth may, or may not, be on the side of the reviewer; though the result of the Quarterly’s previous strictures on Shelley does not augur happily for its accuracy on this point. But the master-stroke of the article is undoubtedly the charge which the reviewer brings against Shelley of meditating incest with his sister in 1811; a charge which Prof. Dowden (a) has since shown to be absolutely and ludicrously groundless, being founded on a complete misreading of one of Shelley’s letters, published by Hogg. The intellect which could put such a monstrous interpretation on a letter which, though hurriedly and excitedly written, is perfectly innocent and intelligible in its main purport, will bear comparison with the literary acumen which, sixty years ago, could detect no meaning in the Cloud and Sensitive Plant; and the fact that the full exposition of this savoury morsel of criticism should have been reserved for so late a generation of Quarterly reviewers may convince us that there is no substantial falling off in the vigour of the race, and that there are still as good fish in the Quarterly as ever came out of it. The remarkable thing is that, on this particular point, the critic of to-day has scorned the comparative moderation and delicacy evinced by the critic of a quarter of a century ago; for in the article published in 1861, the writer expressly blamed Hogg for publishing those of Shelley’s letters which were written in an incoherent and excited mood after his expulsion from Oxford, and seems to forsee that they might be put to an evil use by an unscrupulous interpreter. “Mr. Hogg,” he said “gives us pages of rhapsody from which it would be easy for a little hostile ingenuity to extract worse meanings than we believe the writer ever dreamed. He has not condescended to guard against such an injustice, by the smallest commentary of his own. For the purposes of biography, the letters are all but valueless. If there were any motive for so using them, they would be fatal weapons in the hand of calumny.” A Quarterly reviewer may be supposed to be proof against all external remonstrance, but he must surely feel some filial respect for the solemn adjurations of his own literary forefathers, and the passage just quoted from the anonymous but not wholly unscrupulous writer of 1861 may therefore be confidently commended to the serious attention of the anonymous and very unscrupulous calumniator of 1887.
It seems, then, that there is still a certain amount of truth in the remark made by Shelley in one of his cancelled prefaces, that “reviewers with some rare exceptions, are a most stupid and malignant race.” The Quarterly Review claimed to be able to instruct the general public on points of literary taste; and we have seen that in its estimate of Shelley’s poems it has been at least a quarter of a century behind the rest of the world, and has at last been compelled entirely to recant its earlier opinions. The attempt now made to excuse the former unjust depreciation of Shelley’s literary genius, because of his social heresies, is singularly pointless and feeble; for though an ordinary reader might be pardoned for not discovering the poetical value of writings which for other reasons he disliked, this could be no valid excuse for the blindness of a professed reviewer, whose special duty it was to separate the good from the bad. Yet we find the latest Quarterly reviewer complacently remarking that “the attitude in which Shelley stands towards the past, the present, and the future, explains the unreasoning neglect of his poetic genius during his life.” True, it explains it, but it does not on that account justify it. On the contrary it suggests the thought that the same odium theologicum which so long retarded the recognition of Shelley’s poetical powers may still be a fertile cause of the obloquy and misrepresentation often cast on his character and opinions. But this, too, will pass. It has taken the Quarterly Review close on seventy years to discover that Shelley is a great poet; seventy years more, and it will perhaps think fit to rescind its present verdict that he was “in mind and genius, in moral character and perception a child.”
Published: To-day, January 1888